The night after Christmas finds me seated with relatives and friends at my in-laws’ crowded dinner table, enjoying a delicious meal and happily chatting about television — one of few topics that’s nearly always safe to discuss in mixed company. Of the fourteen people laughing and passing laden platters around, only one is new to me. Someone mentions my interview with Constance Wu of Fresh Off the Boat, and this, apparently, is her cue to look up and address me for the first time since we exchanged our initial his and nice to meet yous.
“Do people ever tell you that you look just like everyone on that show?” she asks.
This question strikes me as so bizarre, so beside the point, that at first I think I’ve misheard. “Excuse me?” I wait for her to clarify, change course.
She repeats her question. She appears to be perfectly serious: “You must get this a lot,” she adds, when I don’t immediately respond.
Oh? Oh. Yes, people often tell me that I look just like everyone on a television show, even though most of them aren’t women. Or my age. Sure. That happens all the time.
Every Asian American has fielded some variation on “all look the same.” As racial microaggressions go, it’s common as dirt. I know I should be able to come up with an answer, something brisk and witty, and bury this moment in the same place where I keep all such awkward memories. But for some reason, my brain just won’t cooperate. My face is burning, my heart pounding too loudly, and it’s painful to even consider making eye contact with anyone at the table.
I know I embarrass too easily. But I assumed I was safe here among family and friends, which makes it all the more unpleasant and jarring to be reminded of my difference as this woman perceives it. I’m upset with her for shattering my comfortable, happy holiday feelings; for bringing my race to the forefront when I had assumed it was irrelevant on this night, in this company. I’m upset with her for forcing my relatives and my spouse and my kids to witness this, even if they have not all registered my humiliation. Her slight was likely unintentional, not a deliberate means of putting me in my place — but she’s a stranger to me, so I can’t know for sure. Maybe I’ve unwittingly offended her, and some part of her wants to take me down a notch or two.
She spoke during a lull in the conversation. I know that everyone heard. If anybody wanted to step in, make a joke to lighten the moment, or even just say “um, she doesn’t look like anyone on that show,” now would be the time. My husband — the only ally I am absolutely sure of at this table — is two seats away, and since I refuse to look up there’s no chance of reading his expression. His silence is the one that hurts a bit, if I’m honest. But this is his family, these are his friends, and anyway it’s only been a split-second since the words left the woman’s mouth and no doubt he’s running through the same agonizing, silent calculus I am, trying to think of what in the world he could say that would acknowledge the offensiveness of her comment without ruining the party. I assume my in-laws and friends are in the same boat, waiting to defuse the situation, perhaps change the subject if I say something ill-advised. Or maybe — as unlikely as it seems — they haven’t even noticed the awkwardness? Is it possible that no one has noticed but me?
Do I really want to force all the people at this table to choose sides in the ultimately unwinnable “was or wasn’t it racist” debate?
I begin rifling through possible responses. Any one of them could get the job done: Sure I get that a lot, but only from racist people who think all Asians look the same! or That’s funny, has anyone ever told you that you look just like everyone on practically every other TV show? or even the brutally direct Why on earth would you say something like that? For one wild second I allow myself to imagine speaking freely, with no attempt at self-deprecation or careful diplomacy.
And then I fast-forward through the rest of the exchange, imagining where it would go from there. Any satisfaction I felt would no doubt dissipate in the face of my questioner’s shock and anger. Our friends and family would feel obligated to jump in and mediate. I’m uncomfortable right now, sure — terribly so — but does that mean I have the right to make everyone else uncomfortable, too? Do I really want to force all the people at this table to choose sides in the ultimately unwinnable “was or wasn’t it racist” debate?
I consider my children, who probably aren’t tracking this conversation — not just because they don’t watch the television show in question, but because they are still young and, for all our intra-family conversations about racism, they do not yet expect to encounter it in their everyday lives. I generally try to push back when someone says something offensive in their earshot, especially when it’s something I think they might understand. But I’m sure tonight’s remark has gone right over their heads, which means I can let it go unchallenged without failing them as a parent.
All these thoughts steamroll through my mind in the span of a few seconds, calculations firing while my cheeks burn and I stare at my plate. For the last time, I consider defending myself. Just giving voice to the confusion and anger and mortification I feel boiling in the pit of my stomach. But I know, in an instant that reminds me of countless others like it, that I’m not that person. The truth sinks in: I am the only one who can make sure that everybody keeps having a good time.
“Uh…no,” I hear myself say. The words come out on a shaky, awkward laugh, in a voice I hardly recognize. I’m still blushing, I still can’t meet anyone’s eyes, but my farce of a smile proves there’s nothing to see here. This is a nice party, my smile clearly says, and we’re all having a nice time. As the faint roaring in my ears subsides, I can recognize that the laughter in the room seems a bit too loud, as if I’ve told a hilarious joke instead of turning bright red and stammering something barely articulate. Later, while discussing the moment in whispers in his parents’ guest room, my husband and I will take turns citing that over-the-top laughter as possible proof that at least some of the people at the table recognized the awkward moment for what it was.
After I swallow my pride and just say “no” my questioner asks if anyone watches “that other ethnic show,” and I decide I cannot listen to this: I start clinking my fork loudly against my plate and talking to my younger daughter, heaping more food on her plate so I won’t have to acknowledge the discussion. Everybody else carries on eating and chatting, having a good time. I don’t say much. It appears I’m still at a loss for words.
The social pressure on people of color to keep the peace, not get mad, just make sure everyone keeps having a nice time — even when we hear these remarks in public, at our workplaces and schools, in our own homes and from our friends’ mouths — can be overwhelming, bearing down on us in so many situations we do not see coming and therefore cannot avoid. What does our dignity matter, what do our feelings amount to, when we could embarrass white people we care about? When our white relatives or friends or colleagues might experience a moment’s discomfort, anxiety, or guilt?
When I think about the relative size and scope of microaggressions, I can’t help but feel ashamed of my inadequate responses. If these are just small offenses, not meant to wound, why can’t I ever manage to shut them down effectively, ensure they aren’t wielded again and again against others? You don’t have to force strangers to see or acknowledge systemic racism and the lives it takes and brutalizes just to point out that hey, friend, all Asians are not interchangeable! You don’t have to charge people to search their souls or assign them difficult reading. The question I got at that party was neither original nor especially terrible — it was such a small thing! — so, given more nerve, a cooler head, and the absolute assurance of support, couldn’t I have come up with other, smarter, sharper things to say?
If these are just small offenses, not meant to wound, why can’t I ever manage to shut them down effectively?
It is that unspoken “better” response that haunts me over a week later. I had the opportunity to stand up for myself, my people, and every people reduced to a monolith; to feel something apart from anger and embarrassment and loneliness, something more akin to cold satisfaction. Everyone likes to believe they would be the one to stand up for someone or call out racism in a crowd. But not only am I not always that person, under a variety of circumstances you probably wouldn’t be, either. (Heaven forbid we have uncomfortable conversations with our family members over the holidays!) I was in a roomful of family and friends that night, surrounded by well-meaning liberals and allies — in other words, people who don’t see me as a chink, a robot or a walking stereotype; people who know and genuinely care about me as an individual. I think and read about these issues all the time; I make my living with words. I was as relieved as anyone to leave that moment behind and pretend it never happened.
It’s not as if I had no power that night. Even if our options aren’t stellar when we’re hit with “casual” racism in a space we once thought safe, we can and do make some sort of choice every time — to inform or ignore, challenge or absolve. The down side to every option on the table, for the person facing that decision, is that the fallout is then perceived as our responsibility. When did the party stop being fun for everyone? When we got mouthy. There is no real way for us to win, whether we cling to some notion of “the high road” or attempt to call out the racism we experience in order to sleep better that night.
In all likelihood, my questioner meant no offense. She just forgot her manners or, more likely, slipped and gave voice to the truth she believes, the truth that lives in her head. Unlike her, I didn’t have the luxury of forgetting myself or my place. At the end of the night, I’m certain I was the only person still thinking about that moment over dinner — I was the one left replaying the words over and over in my mind, second-guessing my bearing and my behavior, wondering if I’d done the right thing. As far as I know, I am still the only one who feels anything about it at all.
Nicole Chung is the Managing Editor of The Toast.
Marissa Maciel is a writer and illustrator.